"Dealing with a wayward mind can be so tricky; creative work or even a creative way of looking at the world can give you a means of holding onto your hat in a way that does not require an adherence to a “normal” or “average” way of thinking or living."
Sometimes I wonder if my interest in art and literature is selfish. I wonder how valuable my contribution really is, and to whom. Who really cares what I do, and why should they? Of course, if I'm the only one who cares--if I do it for myself--back comes the selfishness. This thought process pulls me into the heart of Aberration Nation, the part about how much life can suck. All the responsibilities, the cultural expectations, and the cost of it all weighs me down.
All I can really do is somehow hang onto my hat, focusing on what makes it all feel worthwhile. I recently read about Maya Angelo saying if she couldn't see the world through the lens of writing, she just wouldn't make it; she wouldn't see a purpose in it. The parts of life that excite me keep me going. Despite how small and insignificant they may seem to others, they bring me purpose.
I've been asked, "Why do you need a purpose?"
I don't know the answer to that question.
My mind is like a train station. Numerous trains of thought, pieces of who I am, crisscross through at any given time. I can focus in on one train, or I can step back and view the bigger picture. I know them all so well, moving back and forth across the terrain of my soul. I know where each one came from, but I don't always know where they're headed. What is their objective and when do they rest? When I'm writing and painting, they somehow come together. They miraculously begin to move in the same direction. I see the beauty of their connection and alignment. I begin to see something that makes sense emerge from the hodgepodge of my life.
My guest today, NY Times bestselling author Marya Hornbacher knows what it's like to struggle with mental demons; however different they may be from my own. She's knows how never ending cycles of crazy thinking can drive a person to the edge. I absolutely love her writing! I respect her ability to navigate through the complex emotional maze that is her life while delivering phenomenal creative work.
Among other things she says here, I love her comment about creativity providing an avenue for hat holding. I get it. No matter what I'm actually here for, I know that without my hat, I'm doomed. So I keep holding on, and by doing so, I move forward while the trains in my head zip endlessly along the circuitous routes they travel.
The path to publication seems to be a little different for each writer. How did it come about for you? Are you surprised by your success?
The path to publication for was, for me, a little odd. Like many writers, I started out in journalism, which was both something I loved (still do) and something I needed to pay my bills while I wrote and published poetry. Publishing in journalism and literary magazines was quite traditional. Things took a sharp left turn with the publication of an article I wrote on eating disorders. The article won an award, and the judge called me—if I recall correctly, I was wearing my pajamas and puttering around the house—and asked if he could be of any help in my career. I was twenty. I was a little startled. I had no idea how he might help me. The long and short of it was that he passed my work along to an agent, the agent signed me, and suddenly I found myself writing Wasted. I absolutely never intended to write a memoir. I certainly didn’t intend to do so at 21. So, departing from my grand plans to be a poet, I found myself in a totally different world.
The word “success” gives me the willies. I don’t really understand what it means. I suppose that technically I have had some. But frankly, I feel most of the successes in my life are personal, not professional. And those successes mean more to me, too. So, yes, I’d have to say I’m surprised by the very concept as applied to me.
How old were you when you realized that you wanted to be a writer? Can you tell us about any specific role models or mentors who inspired and/or encouraged you?
I was four. I had been given a blank book as a present. I remember the blank pages made me very nervous, so I decided I would write a novel so they would not be blank. I wrote a terribly derivative thing, based entirely on a play I had seen. Shortly after that, I wrote a short story called “Clouds,” having discovered the copier in my mother’s office, and promptly made 500 copies of “Clouds,” because that was pretty nifty. My first poem was called “Yellow,” and began, “I like yellow.” For this poem, I received an F; it did not rhyme. I was pissed; I didn’t think poems had to rhyme.
Mentors: at first, my parents, who were voracious readers, had a spectacular library, and read to me constantly. Years later, when I was a student at an arts high school, I was blindsided by all the possibilities writing contained when I studied with novelist and poet Jack Driscoll, screenwriter Terry Caszatt, and my lit professor, Nick Bozanic. These men introduced me to such a range of writing I’d never encountered that it made my head spin; they also made me work so hard I thought I’d positively explode. It was heavenly. In my early adulthood, I was mentored by poet and journalist Paul Trachtman, with whom I continue a thrilling discussion of poetry to this day. My dear mentor and friend Brian Anderson, journalist, recently passed away, and it broke my heart. These people have been astonishing gifts to me, and have taught me, pretty much, everything I know—which is that I know not very much.
I vastly prefer writing fiction, though it is excruciatingly difficult for me, and takes me ages. I don’t much care for writing memoir; both my memoirs were written because I believed there was a hole in the literature that my perspective might be able to begin to fill. Perhaps I should provide a caveat; I do not like writing memoirs about things so difficult as mental illness and addiction. I enjoy the personal essay form just fine, and much of my journalism is written in the first person; but the two memoirs I’ve written have been very painful. My first novel, The Center of Winter, is my personal favorite of my books, possibly because it took me an absurd amount of time and I know it so well; the book I’m working on now, a second novel, is much broader in scope, and I feel like I have far more control over it than I did the first one. Which makes some sense, I suppose; writing a first novel, one is sort of flying by the seat of one’s pants, which isn’t so fun. This one is more fun.
A note on the phrase “express [oneself]” with regard to artistic work of any kind: I’m not sure that’s really what one is doing. My sense is that one is more connecting with a reader (or listener, or viewer), not as much expressing the self per se.
Wasted and Madness, you describe your struggle with mental illness. How has being highly creative has helped you deal with those aberrations over the years?
I think more than anything, a creative streak has given me a sense of humor. Without that, I’m not sure how I would handle mental illness, or how I would interpret or experience it in a way that was tolerable (let alone readable). Beyond that, I think I’ve always been able to hold onto the knowledge that my creativity was one of my strong points, one of the only things I really believed in about myself, and having that gave me a kind of ballast through the various storms. Dealing with a wayward mind can be so tricky; creative work or even a creative way of looking at the world can give you a means of holding onto your hat in a way that does not require an adherence to a “normal” or “average” way of thinking or living.
I grew up believing that there was a strong link between creativity and mental illness. It was a belief that kept me from fully exploring my own creativity. I know now that mental illness can strike all types of people, and that all types of people can be highly creative. Given that you are a highly creative person who has struggled with mental illness, do you believe the link is a damaging stereotype in our society? What are your thoughts on this?
There’s definitely a genetic tendency in people who are predisposed to mental illness to also be creative; but, as you say, mental illness is not necessarily a determinate factor in creative people. There are many, many people who are highly creative who do not deal with mental illness. So I think the perception that one must be “mad” or a “mad genius” is, frankly, absurd, though it has roots in ancient cultures that believed people with mental illness to be accessing the voices of the gods. So that’s probably an idea old enough to discard, yes?
The other problematic factor in the mad-genius theory is that it creates a resistance to treatment in people with mental illness who worry that their creative abilities or creative tendencies will be lost if they take medication, stabilize their moods, or in any way take care of their mental disorder. The fact is, while those things (medication, mental stability, lack of mania) change the way in which one creates—for example, I no longer write maniacally all night long for weeks on end—stability does not in any way spell the end of creativity. It spells the consistency of creative production. Those manic weeks of nonstop work, which I didn’t want to lose, turn out in retrospect to have been mostly productive of inconsistent, not very high-quality work after all. The work I am able to do now—sitting down at my desk every day at 8 and working till 5—is vastly more consistent in quality, quantity, and voice. The mind, when out of control, cannot produce consistent creative work; it can soar and crash, but not steadily produce. So I stick with my meds
I was lucky enough to be born into a highly creative family—mostly artists, writers, and teachers—and so my creativity was really sort of taken as a given, as was my general eccentricity. My drive to do creative work was—I am very thankful for this—encouraged at all times, except when work in general overtook my health, which is ultimately counterproductive anyway and obviously damaging to the mind. Certainly I’ve run into people who thought I was (to quote Shakespeare) “passing strange,” and have had relationships of one kind or another with them that felt awful and constraining; it was difficult to explain my need to work on writing when others thought I might need to work on, for example, laundry or dinner parties. The funniest thing my husband ever said to me was, after I’d been locked in my office for two months writing a poem, emerging mostly to eat and sleep—anyway, we were fighting about the fact that I was totally undomesticated and no help whatsoever around the house, and I yelled, “I’ve been working nonstop!” and he narrowed his eyes and said, “What exactly do you do?” Which of course made me want to hit him with a pan. But over time he’s gotten pretty used to my oddities, and realized that mostly I’m going to write, and that’s that. So in truth, I’ve been lucky—and at the times when I’ve encountered people who didn’t get it, I just threw up my hands and let those people think whatever they were going to think.
When the sh-t hits the fan, many of us tend to wallow over our imperfections and situations as if nothing could possibly be worse. We feel sorry for ourselves, guilty, and undeserving of happiness. We forget that there is always someone out there who has it worse than us. How were you able to avoid letting those powerful emotions sabotage your happiness and success?
I struggle with that stuff as much as anyone else, I suppose—the feeling of being undeserving, unsuccessful, yada yada yada, obsessing about imperfections, and so forth. What I do is mostly ignore myself and proceed with the work. A great line by Mary Karr, when discussing her need to work: “It was time to apply my ass to a desk chair and just get it done.” I am totally misquoting, but the point stands. When I do start to feel that I have it worse than anyone else (cue tiny violins), I volunteer and do work for people who IN FACT have it a hell of a lot worse than me and struggle constantly with things I tend to take for granted. I spend a good deal of time doing pro bono and volunteer work, and honestly that work is far more important to me than anything else that I do. It keeps me sane, honest, and in my place.
My writing process involves a great deal of neurosis which, as I said above, requires concentrated ignoring. Mostly what I find effective is the ass-applied-to-desk-chair approach. The best line I’ve ever heard on this was from Nabokov, maybe? or possibly someone else? Anyway, this person was giving a lecture, and a young audience member asked him, “Do you write only when you’re inspired?” and he replied, “Yes, and I’m inspired every morning at precisely 8 a.m.” I have that posted above my desk. Sometimes the writing (or whatever creative endeavor is yours) is there and flows naturally; sometimes it’s like pulling out your own teeth. Either way works, but you have to make the effort. When it comes to feeling like I have “writer’s block,” I just start writing whatever—lists, nonsense, general ideas—and wait for the real writing to come, and whether that takes an hour or a week, it always does come. When I hate what I’m writing, I write something else. When I don’t want to write, I read something better than I can write myself and at least try to learn something. But in any case, discipline and organization are deeply deeply deeply important for me, and I hear for a lot of other artists as well.
With regard to your current creative focus, was there an "ah-ha" moment you can tell us about?
I realized the other day that the book I was writing was actually two books. This is not the first time this has happened. So I had to put half the book in a drawer—the half I had written—and start the second half—the half I had NOT written, and had merely sketched out. In short, I had to start from scratch, because that was the book I really wanted to write right then, so that was the book I figured I’d better write. I find conversations with myself and with other people extremely helpful in spinning out my thoughts on what I’m writing and finding out what I mean by saying it out loud; equally helpful is hearing other people talk about their work and their ah-ha moments, because it reminds me that the process of creative production is mostly random and exploratory rather than logical and orderly (this is why the imposition of organization and discipline is necessary).
Another ah-ha moment of late is realizing the writing (creative work of any kind) is more like an archaeological dig than it is like a race—the work is all in there, just waiting to be discovered, and it requires patience and little brushes and spades and a huge amount of effort, but you can’t expect it to just appear fully formed on the page. It won’t do that. It has to be found.
“Of those to whom much has been given, much shall be required.” It keeps me mindful of just how damn lucky I am in countless ways, and that therefore I have the responsibility to give back, all the time, in any way I can. This is the work of a life, not just the work of a creative life. And it seems to me that while my creative life can in some cases be a way of giving back, there’s more I need to do, so I try to do it.
What's next for Marya Hornbacher?
I’m at work on a novel and a collection of poetry. I’m teaching, which is more inspirational than anything I know besides reading voraciously, and in the next few years I’ll be going back to school to do a PhD in literature. The next few books will be novels, then the poetry, and then I’ll get back to nonfiction.
"... this circuitous path I've walked has brought me to a wonderful place."
The verb hunger means to have a strong desire. Lust, crave, itch, thirst. Those are its synonyms. We all hunger for basic emotional needs such as love, acceptance, control, and freedom. And the reality is that some of us focus on these necessities much more than others due to genetics, stress, and personal history.
If only we could place our hands around those wonderful intangibles and shove them into the few open orifices we have. If there were only a safe, fantastical pill that could carry all that we crave deep into the bowels of who we are. Could we finally be satisfied? Could we be content with the face in our mirror--warts, curves, and all?
If there were such a pill, it just might work. But there is no magic panacea, and there never will be. If there was, Marya Hornbacher would surely have found it. In her critically acclaimed memoir, Wasted, Marya shares her courageous battle with anorexia and bulimia. Both conditions continue to be perpetuated by our size zero, competitive society. If our strengths can also be our weaknesses, it may also be true for culture. The American dream, the self-made man, and the ability to have it all has a darker side in more ways than one. Our cultural legacy to control our own destiny, and captain our own courageous ship, has a sharp edge that just may kill you on the way to your dream.
Marya has joined the Aberration Nation. Her reflective answers about her journey as well as how our culture continues to undermine those susceptible to all types of eating disorders is fascinating, well-said, honest, and inspiring. No doubt, the same aspects that made her memoir a Pulitzer Prize nominee.
You've been diagnosed with and have overcome anorexia and bulimia. While many of us are now generally familiar with anorexia and bulimia, can you tell us in plain terms what they're really all about? I suspect that some of us still don't get it.
Eating disorders are complicated, and touch all areas of a person's life--his or her body, mind, and spirit are all affected, and all are involved in the development of the disorders as well. The usual answer given to the question of "what are eating disorders about?" is "control"--and that's not wrong. People with anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder, and the variations on these themes, tend to struggle with a sense that they are out of control of their lives and their worlds; the desire for control is then projected onto the body, as a kind of "object" that can be controlled, or so we are told and often believe. In my own experience, eating disorders are very much about fear; the fear that one is too much, not enough, not right, all wrong, and on and on, in a kind of endless refrain of inadequacy and excess, as well as a fear about one's ability to navigate the challenging waters of life and the world. They are also a manifestation of this culture's obsession with food, body, and weight, and a literalization of the rather deathly images of beauty that are plastered on the walls of our Western world. I am always surprised that people can possibly wonder why some of us get eating disorders, when they are in fact encouraged and rewarded in so many ways. The hell of it is, you often set out with the belief that "losing a few pounds" will make you happier in some vague way, and find that, because of your personal makeup and set of issues, you are caught up in an often-fatal addiction.
Your struggle with eating disorders began at very young age. Can you tell us about that, and explain how young children can also be susceptible to eating disorders?
I developed bulimia when I was nine. It was less common back then for someone to develop an eating disorder so young, but it's terrifyingly frequent now. Children are exposed to the same cultural messages as the rest of us, but they have even fewer filters to help them understand what they're being told; children who are predisposed, through personality, chemistry, and/or family, to develop addictive or otherwise unhealthy behaviors, may develop eating disorders very early on. Children, both boys and girls, are aware of the pressure to have some mythical "perfect" body, translated usually as a thin body, and they may take that pressure very seriously and try to respond. Some kids grow up in families that are actively body- and food-obsessed, so they are aware of the pressures at home as well. In my case, there was a combination of family pressure and obsession with food and weight, plus my own excessive awareness of the larger cultural pressure, plus the various personality traits that contribute to eating disorder development (such as perfectionism, competitiveness, and self-dislike), as well as an underlying mental illness (in my case, bipolar disorder); this combination is not terribly uncommon.
How did you come to be diagnosed with anorexia and bulimia? How did you initially cope? What were some of the greatest challenges to overcoming these aberrations?
I was diagnosed at the age of 16, when the medical toll of the disorders was great enough that I couldn't hide them anymore, and I was hospitalized. My hope is that families, friends, teachers, and counselors are more aware of eating disorders these days and can identify the signs sooner. As is usually the case, I was deeply disinterested in recovery at first, and seriously in denial about the severity of the problem; I didn't want help, and refused to cooperate in my own care. It wasn't until several years and many hospitalizations later that I made the choice to recover. At that time, I clung hard to the people I loved, who were extremely supportive, and I worked my butt off in therapy to get at the root of my troubles. But the simple process of re-learning how to take care of my body, and to trust it, was the most immediately necessary step toward recovering. You can wonder about your issues all you want, but if you don't take active steps to change your behavior, you won't get far. The greatest challenge was my own fear of recovery--I had had an eating disorder for so long that I couldn't discern where I ended and the eating disorder began, so recovering seemed very threatening. A second challenge was tuning out all of those cultural messages that encourage obsession and self-damaging behaviors. That's hard to do, and very necessary. You have to become stronger than the messages you hear, and define for yourself who you want to be, defining that person not by how you look or how much you do, but by who you are and what you believe.
Was there a turning point in your recovery? If so, what made the difference in your life? Was it ultimately something that someone else did for you or said, or was it an internal change or resolve that saved you?
There were people all along the way whose words helped me, even though they didn't magically make things better. I drew on those words of support and encouragement and challenge, and I still do. There is unfortunately no magic moment when one turns the corner; it's a combination of other people's assistance and your own internal determination to live a better life unrestricted by obsession. At a certain point in early recovery, though, I did make the decision to stop the behaviors (binging, purging, starving, over-exercising) absolutely, no matter what; that was a tough decision to make and stick with, but it can be done. I told myself that I was giving health six months--if I hated living without my eating disorder, I could always go back. And while it was hard to live without it, it was so much better in every way to live in freedom that I stuck it out. Gradually, living healthy got easier, and then it became natural, and now it's just the way I live. Getting through those first difficult stages is the hardest part; then the rewards of health come fast and furious, and you begin to see how much you were missing while you were sick.
Can one fully recover from anorexia and/or bulimia, or do they pose a lifelong struggle similar to alcoholism? How have you managed to remain healthy?
One can fully recover. It isn't easy, and unfortunately there is the belief that it can't be done; this belief encourages people to think it isn't worth trying. But it is worth it. The comparison with alcoholism isn't entirely off, though; I am a recovering alcoholic, and I don't think of it as something I "struggle" with, or will struggle with all my life. It isn't a struggle to stay off the sauce; it's a choice, and the real work is the personal growth one needs to continue doing over the years. I also know that I am at a higher risk of winding up drunk than is the average person, so I have to make sure I'm doing the personal work I need to in order to stay away from that first drink. Similarly, I'm at a higher risk for relapsing into eating disordered behavior than your average person is; I need to keep doing the personal work to stay away from that, too. But the idea of these things as "struggle" gives them a negative connotation that they don't have to have; they are choices one maintains with consistent effort. That's a good thing, not a bad thing.
You have gone on to become an accomplished writer and advocate. What has been the biggest struggle in achieving your goals and how have you managed?
The biggest obstacle to meeting my goals has always been my fear. I think that stops more people from realizing their personal dreams than anything else. Fear is my biggest challenge, and I meet it by doing the things I want to do whether they scare me or not. As Georgia O'Keeffe said, "I'm afraid all the time. But I never, never let it stop me." I wouldn't say I'm afraid all the time. But when I am, I don't let it stop me.
Anorexia and bulimia can be killers. While there seemed to be a considerable amount of attention given them in the late 80's and 90's, they seem to have slowly dropped on the radar since the year 2000. In the meantime, while the media and social pressures to be thin may have shifted a little, a large number of girls and women still idolize size zero, and obesity remains a national issue. Do you feel that enough has been done to educate people about eating disorders?
No. But I also feel that people are very resistant to seeing the way in which they are engaged in their own degree of obsession and body-hatred, and this is a big part of what perpetuates eating disorders. We have normalized a hatred of the body and an obsession with food to the point where we expect people to behave and feel in ways that are actually not normal at all; this is what I mean when I say that our culture is eating disordered. Not many people know what it would mean to truly take care of and respect their bodies, and that's what's strange. The fact that some percentage of the population develops full-blown eating disorders isn't odd at all; it's just an extreme form of what we have come to see as normal self-dislike and lack of self-care. I'm not saying it's acceptable, just that it isn't surprising. I believe the most effective education about eating disorders would be to ask people to look at how they, too, obsess and engage in unhealthy behaviors; what do they believe about healthy, beauty, food, their bodies? The most important tool in changing society is the individual act. Until each of us, as individuals, make the decision to stop playing this game, there will be a problem in the cultural as a whole.
We would all love to have the easy route to happiness but it doesn't always happen that way. In what ways have the negative, powerful forces in your life enabled you to emerge as the courageous, positive person you are today? When you look back on your life, do you believe that the path it took led you to a great place?
I do. I am a very, very happy person, very grateful for the people in my life, and very blessed. Experience is a great teacher. I would prefer it if it hadn't taken me so long to learn what I have; no person's troubles are theirs alone, and the people I love have suffered through a lot with me. I wish that were not the case. But yes, I believe that this circuitous path I've walked has brought me to a wonderful place.
What are the top three things that friends and family can do for someone dealing with eating disorders?
1. Be honest. Don't ignore the problem. Tell them what you see, and be honest about how that makes you feel.
2. Help them find help. Don't try to take care of them, cure them, or fix them; know that these are complicated disorders that require the help of professionals wherever possible.
3. Once they have that help, don't coddle them. Love them, but be firm in your insistence that they keep working toward recovery.
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